Study claims ‘attractive’ female students score less in online classes, making it prime incel fodder

By Malavika Pradeep

Published Nov 10, 2022 at 12:20 PM

Reading time: 3 minutes


On Wednesday 9 November 2022, psychology and neuroscience news website PsyPost publicised a recent study that claimed “attractive” female students saw their grades drop when classes and exams moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Authored by Adrian Mehic, a post-doctoral researcher at Lund University, and published in the peer-reviewed journal Economic Letters, the study essentially suggested that physical appearance has an impact on our success and that this “beauty premium” disappears for attractive females when classes are taught remotely.

“I’m interested in discrimination, generally,” Mehic told PsyPost. “In economics research, lots of attention is given to discrimination based on gender and/or race. While these are important issues, there has not been much research on beauty-based discrimination in the educational setting, so the paper fills a gap there.”

The researcher went on to add how the pandemic made appearance-based discrimination much more difficult—given the fact that teachers could not readily see students’ faces. “Whereas discrimination on, for instance, gender is possible in the online setting also, as long as you have the names of students,” Mehic continued.

The discriminatory gamble between beauty and grades

With the aim of investigating the effect of student attractiveness on university grades, both during in-person and remote classes, the author pulled data from five different groups of engineering students from a Swedish university—resulting in a final sample of 307 students. Their attractiveness was then rated by an independent group of 74 individuals.

The results? The better their looks, the higher their grades were for some in-person courses such as business and economics. Meanwhile, courses like maths and physics—where scoring is based more on quantitative tests than projects, speaking, and reports—did not see the same correlation between beauty and grades.

The findings then revealed that the switch to online classes eliminated the beauty premium in question—but only for female students. Their attractive male counterparts, on the other hand—who “tend to be more persistent and have a greater influence on their peers”—suffered no such setback.

“This, at least to me, suggests that the beauty premium for males is due to some productive attribute (for instance, them having higher self-confidence) rather than discrimination, whereas it is due to discrimination for women,” Mehic stated, adding that he was surprised to see male students excel in online settings.

“It seems to be quite difficult for researchers to answer why people discriminate based on appearance,” the author concluded. “Probably, it’s because when we see an attractive person, we assign them some characteristics that they may not actually possess, such as intelligence. However, more research is required to establish precisely why this happens.”

On these terms, multiple studies from 2021 have previously found that the pay gap between tips earned by attractive waitstaff and their peers narrowed during the mask mandate set into motion following the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s more is that, while attractive male employees in face masks did not impact customers significantly, their female peers reportedly induced lower customer satisfaction and skewed their perceptions.

Incel fodder and allegations of bias

Now, it should also be noted that the study in question has caused quite a stir in Sweden, especially at Lunds University. “Mehic is now under investigation from the National Research Ethics Board for not conducting ethical research,” a Redditor noted on r/science.

“The most disturbing part is that it was conducted without the subjects knowing they were part of the study, and therefore without their consent.” According to the claims, Mehic decided the participants’ level of attractiveness by going through their social media and picking out what he thought were the most attractive images of them.

“These pictures were then sent to a ‘jury’ consisting of about 70 persons, of which about half were high schoolers to rate their attractiveness. As mentioned, all of this was done without their knowledge and is as a whole pretty skewed way to rate attractiveness,” they continued.

Several other Redditors added to the claims that the paper’s methodology and ethics have been questioned post-release. “One example of an issue raised was that the study completely ignored the fact that most grades are set purely by exam results, not by in-person graders, and that the exams themselves are anonymous,” a user stated.

“Another was that (even if you accept the conclusions of the study) the study draws largely unsupported conclusions about the reasons for the results (that women are graded on beauty but men on confidence), without considering alternative possibilities—such as, for example, that the groups were affected by the pandemic differently.”

Attractive female students no longer earned higher grades when classes moved online during COVID-19
byu/chrisdh79 inpsychology

However, if there’s one thing we’ve learned about the manosphere, it’s the fact that they practically eat up every single claim that aids their beliefs at face value. With articles titled Attractive female students got lower grades during remote learning, the study in question quickly became incel fodder on the internet.

While the research essentially aimed to better isolate the discrimination faced by female students in online settings, elated incels took to several subreddits to comment their unsolicited opinions including: “Young women manipulating men is old as Earth. Men who mature have the last laugh,” “Figures, [it’s] hard to blow the teacher through the microphone,” and “Cleavage online isn’t the same.”

“My guess: no longer able to flirt with the nerd so he’d do the work,” a user wrote, while another added: “All of a sudden, I know exactly why every woman I know who has anything to do with education wants in-person classes again.” Making its way onto several men’s rights forums, it was quickly dubbed as “the article feminists don’t want people to see.”

While the insights offered by the study are shocking, but not surprising given its discriminatory context, it’s worth knowing that the entire conversation surrounding ‘beauty privilege’ is relatively new. So unless the experiment is truly controlled, I recommend consuming the findings with a pinch of salt and always reading the details before formulating your opinions about the same.

Oh, and also make sure to practise your eye roll-and-scroll skills, because you’re bound to find problematic remarks littered throughout the internet every waking day in 2022.

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